As a parent, one of the most impactful things you can do is acknowledge your kids’ achievements and healthy habits. This is when you put your empathy muscles to work to encourage good behavior, self-confidence and self-worth in your kids.
It’s important to accept, however, that no one is born perfect — your child will ultimately make bad choices. It’s how you handle and respond to the situation that determines whether or not they’ll make better decisions and develop healthy habits going forward.
Here’s what parents who raise confident, smart and empathetic kids do when their kids behaves:
They focus on their child’s behavior
Complimenting specific behaviors is better than complimenting the kid as a whole person. It’s the difference between saying, “You’re are such a good kid!” and “You did such a great job putting your toys back in the cubby!”
This way, children are not always under the microscope of being classified as “good” or “bad” kids. They are critiqued for their behaviors, which can be changed to meet expectations.
The flip side should be fairly obvious: It’s better to criticize children’s behavior than to criticize the child as a person.
For example, you would say, “I didn’t like that you hit your baby brother. That was not a nice thing to do,” rather than saying, “You are a bad brother.”
We hope that children will conclude there are better options to consider in the future. We know and they know that they are capable of better choices.
They use guilt, not shame
Adam Grant, a professor of psychology, says that using a little guilt to correct your kids is better than using shame. He argues that shame is an ineffective technique with poor consequences. But guilt, when used carefully, can be a powerful motivator.
For example, if your child does something wrong, shaming communicates to the child that he or she is not a good person, while guilt, which asks the child to reflect on how a specific behavior missed the mark, is a motivator for more positive behavior in the future.
When children feel guilt, they tend to experience remorse and regret, empathize with the person they have harmed, and aim to make it right.
He points to a study in which toddlers were given a rag doll and the left leg fell off during play: The shame-prone toddlers avoided the researchers and did not volunteer that they broke the doll. The guilt-prone toddlers were amenders.
They build self-worth
Grant recommends that before toddlers evolve into preschoolers, we should ask them to be helpers. Involving your children in your daily tasks provides them with self-compassion and makes them feel like they have something meaningful to offer.
You can enhance your child’s identity by asking questions such as “Will you be a sharer? A carer? A caring person? Can you play with your baby brother for 10 minutes to help mommy?”
I wish I had done this with my children when they were young. By the time I started asking for help around the house when they were around nine years old, it was too late. There were battles because they were not accustomed to helping at all.
Learn from my mistake: Start asking for assistance with simple tasks at an early stage.
They discuss emotions
A great parenting tip comes from Dr. Markus Paulus, a professor of developmental psychology at Ludwig Maximilian University in Munich, Germany.
He recommends having open conversations and doing activities that explore emotions. If your son screamed at his sister, ask him how he felt during that time, and how he thinks she might have felt being yelled at.
The point is to guide children into the wonderful world of feelings. In one study, researchers observed parents reading picture books to their toddlers and discovered that the children who were asked to discuss emotions in the books tended to share more quickly and more often.
They avoid bribery
Sometimes, parents give up on correcting bad behavior and resort to bribery. But several researchers say that parents should avoid this technique.
Bribing is a strategy that only works in the short-term. Good behavior isn’t something that should be bought with toys and food. Parents should be tapping into children’s natural reservoir of wanting to do good.